A very early and somewhat diaristic post on this blog was a story about experiences of “poppy fascism” on Remembrance Sunday. It wasn’t that great a post but it was nonetheless an honest attempt to articulate a discomfort that I have long found difficult to put into words.
The very experience of disarticulation is central to my interest in art and philosophy — not only in terms of the never-ending process of thinking and inventing new language, alongside reading the thought of others to acquire new concepts, but also those very real moments (limit-experiences) where language so frequently dissolves itself. (A process closer, I think, to poetry than the word salad so often deployed by today’s insecure artists and academics.)
It’s no coincidence that so much of the philosophy that best deals with these questions comes from that time just before, during and after the Second World War. I find 1930s French philosophy, in particular, to be one of the most fascinating philosophical eras for this very reason. The closer thought gets to the event-horizon of that war and its atrocities, the more openly philosophers contend with the insufficiency of their own thought and the words that give form to it.
We don’t really think like that anymore — or rather, we think we don’t need to. Atrocities are all too visible and there are many ways in which we can now talk about that which seems to be at the limit of our understanding — be that scientifically or ideologically. It feels like language is no longer effaced by violence in the way that it once was. In some circumstances, this resilience is useful; in others, it feels like something has been lost.
When the annual memorial services for the First and Second World Wars roll around again in this country, this is what I always end up thinking about. Every year, no matter the occasion, there is a tension around our ability to remember that which is innately difficult to express. Battlefields, genocides… How best to remember that which is so close to the unthinkable?
The only way to do this is surely to hold this question open.
England’s remembrance events consistently fail at all their attempts to do this — if they make any attempt at all. They say that history is written by the winners and, for us in this country — not just on this issue but across the board — that’s a real problem, not least because the history we write for ourselves is so reductive and confused (perhaps inevitably so).
If we look elsewhere, at those countries that have lost or otherwise suffered unfathomable losses, remembrance takes on a different tone and character. The unanswerable questions that surround trauma are carried forwards in ways that the arrogance of the winners so often loses in its generalised patriotic narratives. Even if that victory came at great cost, even if that victory was hard won and was its own kind of trauma, the roll such a victory plays in the strengthening of ideology reduces its impact. The victory itself becomes a superficial bandaid over the meaningless void of the horrors of war.
That’s been very clear today, watching the news coverage for the 75th anniversary of D-Day — the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War. There’s all this pomp; all this celebration. It was a victory, after all. You’ve got Trump and Theresa May reading out first-hand experiences and war poetry in monotonous school-play tones. You’ve got news readers talking in one breath about how unimaginable the experience must have been but, rather than holding onto that, falling back on historical technicalities and interviewing modern army big wigs about the biggest operation of its kind in history; a huge military success.
What really stuck in my head in orbit of all this was the modern-day soldiers celebrating in Portsmouth with the veterans by holding what weirdly looks like an arms fair. (I tweeted about this earlier.)
These old boys are evidently having a lot of fun, and their visibly giddy with excitement getting to play with all these big 21st century toys — and who am I to say they can’t enjoy themselves — but, with all of the above in mind, it’s nonetheless a haunting image to me to broadcast on the television.
It’s ten years this year since Harry Patch, the “Last Tommy”, passed away at the age of 111. His voice was always the most sobering around moments of First World War remembrance — an ardent pacifist who seemed to hate war all the more for having fought in one, using his fame as one of the world’s oldest men ever only to denounce the celebration of war, repeatedly expressing his terror at what wars would undoubtedly become, infamously declaring: “The next world war will be chemical — I don’t want to see it.”
I had his words echoing around my head watching these World War II veterans gleefully handle the “tools of modern warfare.”
These men can do what they like but the spectacle of it, dominating the day’s rolling news footage, exacerbating the difference between how we consider the First and Second World Wars in our national news coverage, is striking to me now.
Just as Patch was the last surviving Flanders soldier to have fought in that war, the BBC news reader was keen to harp on about the mortality of these men. “These first-hand experiences won’t be around for much longer and we mustn’t forget them,” he declared at one point, but evidently those experiences are not the focus here. The focus is instead on the sheer scale of this military operation, providing the modern-day army with a PR opportunity and an fodder for inspiring troops in future conflicts.
We won the Second World War, you see, and defeated the greatest evil in modern European history, and that’s a story today’s troops must internalise. The patriotism and nationalism of that moment must be carried forwards — but not a patriotism belonging to the boys on the frontline; the patriotism of the donkeys leading the lions. Lest we forget that Churchill was more afraid of the Third Reich overtaking the British Empire as a global power than of defending anyone’s individual freedoms. Many British Conservatives admired Hitler until he threatened their own geopolitical egos. Churchill’s, then, was a victory for empire.
Whereas the First World War was more of a moot victory, defined by catastrophic losses and unfinished business — leading to a technical peace if not any lasting political calm for the countries affected by the conflict, failing to close the rupture — the Second World War is made to feel like a great bookend in the British national consciousness. Whilst other nations continued to struggle psychologically for years with the aftermath of that war, Britain forgets itself, in the south at least. The scars persisted elsewhere with there still being bomb sites you can visit in cities in the north of England, but these have become just another symbol of homegrown class struggle and neglect — a very different sort of life during wartime.
And so, the Second World War has been allowed to become a Hollywood war. The Normandy beaches are as much a Saving Private Ryan location tour as they are a place of pilgrimage and remembrance — and we’re all the lesser for it. It becomes a topic, a moment, an era that is easy to use, and we still see that today with our politicians using the language of frontline bravery, positioning themselves as freedom fighters, still in the name of an ever-dwindling Churchillian imperial ego.
It feels like whatever hubris the First World War gave us is lost to a story we might prefer to tell ourselves.
The closure of the wounds of World War Two in the British imagination, in favour of a nationalistic ideal, feels, to me, something like the closure of the American frontier, with the defeated continental man becoming alien to an English hubris. It renders the Normandy beaches as a literal line in the sand across which the nation’s unconscious has never since crossed, but that’s not to say such a crossing is impossible. It is a line in the sand in every sense — symbolically absolute, materially formless — and all days like today reveal is how successfully this vague line has nonetheless continued to flow across generations, effacing the stark message of the Last Tommy’s who would surely be repulsed if they were handed the tools of modern warfare, having hoped and prayed that there was some truth to “the war to end all wars”.